The inconsequential decision by John Lewis to stock hijabs in their school uniform department is generating a great deal of manufactured outrage.
On August 16, the Daily Mail ran the headline, “John Lewis’s new line, hijabs to wear at school: Department store signs contract with schools in London and Liverpool to offer conservative Islamic clothing”
Within hours, it became a viral success, with thousands of online shares and a cavalcade of angry reader comments.
But context is important: John Lewis provides uniforms for 350 schools nationwide and two (less than one percent) requested the hijab as part of their uniform list.
One of the schools in question is the Islamia Girls’ School, an Islamic secondary school, owned by the Yusuf Islam Foundation. Ofsted rates the school as ‘outstanding’ in every department and caters for just 152 full-time pupils.
The other is Belvedere Academy, a non-denominational girls’ school, which teaches over 700 pupils. In 2010, Ofsted rated the school as ‘outstanding.’
It might seem natural for an Islamic school to request a hijab as part of their uniform list. According to the John Lewis website, both schools list the hijab as an optional item of uniform.
The piece also refers to former Lib Dem Home Office Minister, Jeremy Browne, who in 2013, called for a national debate around the veil in public places. Mr Browne also drew attention to young Muslim women being “forced” to wear the veil. But there is little evidence to suggest either school is enforcing this upon pupils.
Conflating various Islamic veils only muddies the debate. The hijab does not provoke as much public hostility as the burqa or niqab.
Yet, a negative focus upon the hijab might distort the public debate around the religiosity of visible female Muslims, a group more likely to face violence and abuse at an online and offline level.
Nor did it take the far-right long to jump upon the story. The English Defence League (EDL) posted, “The Islamification of our country continues…” Supporters quickly called for a boycott:
“Another shop on the list to avoid along with restaurants inc starters for serving halal”
“Dirty Muslim loving pricks!!!! I hope your business is next to fail”
Supporters of Britain First responded with equal amounts of venom:
“Where’s the TARGET that’s supposed to be printed on it????”
“Disgusting.go home to your own country. Dont Try to take over ours coz yours is in such disrepair. Wake up Britain Enoch powell was so right.”
“No more John Lewis for me and my kids this is Christian country”
Some comments from Daily Mail readers echoed a sense of an imagined Britain disappearing amid calls for a store boycott.
Forget the minor business decision and its benefit for some Muslim customers. Instead, on a broader note, the drip of negative coverage risks redefining what it means to be Muslim in contemporary Britain, and further alienating those who visibly express their faith.
What does it say about our society that such a minor story can generate such hostility? We risk losing all proportion on this issue as others fall for the seductive ‘othering’ of racism.